Conservation for Climate: A Trip to the Michigamme Highlands

We are lost in the woods in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s mid-summer and a small group of staff and supporters from The Nature Conservancy can’t find their way out of the dark woods of the McCormick Wilderness. I’m annoyed. We’re not trapped in the dense spruce and fir forest along the Peshekee River: I can see clearly in all directions amidst the hardwood pillars. The footing is uneven, with hummocks of moss obscured by ferns, but it’s not a boot-sucking swamp like the headwaters of the Yellow Dog River.

How can we be lost? Twenty minutes ago we walked through the brush at the dead end of a two-track, climbed over a ridge and skirted around giant stumps. I followed the others as we picked our way down a slope avoiding slippery patches of decaying leaves.  Stopping to listen about tree species and forest succession I became a passive member of the group.  Now I am uncertain about how to get back to our small off-road vehicles. I have no sense of direction.

I had been lost here in the Michigamme Highlands before. In 2006, I had achieved a goal set as a youth: to complete an epic long-distance hike. Mine had been modest, a six-week trek across the Upper Peninsula from the Mackinac Bridge to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The first half of the trip had been relatively easy, following the North Country Trail across sandy-soil, second-growth woods to Lake Superior and then along the well-marked paths in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

After I hiked through Marquette, and passed the Dead River, the land turned wild and rocky, and in places steep. Hubris led me from an out-of-season ski trail to an old road to a mess of logging tracks in a former clear-cut now obscured by six-foot high saplings. I checked my map and compass, scouted options, gauged the sun in the sky, and began walking. Several times I had to stop and re-assess my plan and progress, and I made a few more wrong turns, but I kept moving forward. The day’s hike was twice as long as planned, but I got back on course.

It turns out we weren’t really lost in the McCormick Wilderness either. Rather, we just needed to look up and pay attention, consult the GPS unit we had with us, and communicate better with one another. Our hike back to the two-track was a bit longer than planned, but soon enough we clambered into the side-by-sides and were on our way again. Sometimes, we just need to take a moment, share our knowledge and rely on one another.

The Michigamme Highlands occupy ancient geology west and north of Marquette and east and south of Keweenaw Bay. This remote area of old forests, active logging roads, abandoned two-tracks, isolated lakes, deer camps, Michigan’s highest hills, moose-inhabited swamps, and rocky streams may be some of the most important natural geography in the Great Lake . Scientists call this wild land “resilient.” The varied landscape allows plant species and fauna to move year over year and thus sustain its biodiversity as the climate changes. 

Most importantly, from a climate perspective, the Michigamme Highlands contains trees, lots of them, old and young. Remember science class, that chapter on photosynthesis? Plants take carbon-dioxide out of the air and, with the power of sunlight, turn it into food as they exhale the oxygen. In a tree, this means a lot of carbon gets stored in the form of leaves, roots, stems, branches, and sturdy trunks.

Think of a whole forest of trees, and the amount of carbon stored there is significant. And every year the trees grow they take out, or sequester, several tons of carbon annually. Even as leaves and branches fall, the carbon gets stored in the soil. In fact, in a healthy and diverse forest, about 45 percent of the carbon is stored in the deep, humus-rich forest soil.   

Some of the oldest, most carbon-strong forests in the Great Lakes region are found in the Michigamme Highlands. If there’s really wilderness in Michigan, it can be found here. The rough terrain, bisected geography of rivers and ridges, and quirks of land ownership left several large forests untouched, including the McCormick Tract , which had been purchased in 1904 by the wealthy Chicago family of farm equipment fame and later given to the US Forest Service.

Many of us appreciate these mature forests for their reverent beauty, the special plants and animals that live here, and for the spiritual connection to a place that has been undisturbed for the history of human civilization. Now, as we confront the changes to the planet brought on by human civilization, we see these forests as a life preserver. The carbon captured in these woods helps stave off even worse climate impacts. Importantly, we also look at these forests aspirationally: how can we grow more places like this to take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere?

Logging still marks the landscape.  While there are several stands of old growth forest in the Michigamme Highlands, most of the region has been logged at least once.  The land has survived other abuses from mining, unsuccessful railroads, and the neglect of a collapsed economy. But trees regrow, and the forests persists.

For almost two centuries, these forests have been cut, regrown and then cut again. The land was owned by those with an interest in the long-term, steady production of wood products and the financial return thus gained. Timber and paper companies owned the forests and the mills and employed everyone from foresters to factory hands.

The residents enjoyed the forests as well.  A Michigan law, the Commercial Forest Act, gives owners of timber land a break on their taxes in exchange for providing public access for hunting or fishing or snowmobiling. This poses no real problem for a land owner thinking of the timber and with a time horizon in the decades or beyond.

In the last 50 years, the ownership of the forests in the Upper Peninsula and many other wooded places has changed, and so too have land use motivations and practices. Timber Investment Management Organizations (or TIMOs) now own the majority of non-public forest land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.Rather than seeing forests as the source of future raw materials for a wood products business, TIMOs evaluate forests as a tradeable asset.

The real estate value of a forest is now separate from the from the business of mills and lumber. While this improves economic efficiency, it also changes the time horizon for the management of forests. Most investors have goals for their money that is measured in years, not decades.  TIMOs need to make a return that rivals, or beats, that of stocks or other Wall Street options in order to attract investors. Until now, investor-owners have had two choices: cut the timber on the land or sell the nicest places for development.  But if we can find a market for carbon, perhaps there is another option

Wood is a carbon-neutral product.  While tree huggers fight the felling of a forest, the careful harvesting of timber is not as damaging to the long-term climate as it is to the immediate ecosystem. When trees are turned into two-by-fours, beams, or wood furniture, the carbon in the wood remains sequestered. The tree is no longer living, but the inanimate carbon stays on the job.

In our overdue quest for a more sustainable economy, more and more people are looking to wood products as a climate-friendly way to provide shelter, tools, and even clothing.  From a climate standpoint, synthetics, concrete and steel are detrimental to life on the planet.  They last a long time, but they take a tremendous amount of energy to produce. Wood is better.

Now, creative engineers and architects are turning to wood for buildings, even high-rises. Through the use of laminates and attention to structural design, large multi-story buildings are now being built out of what is called “mass timber.”  The first such building in Michigan has just been constructed on the Michigan State University campus. The new STEM Teaching and Learning Facility was built with sustainably grown timber and stores about 1,856 metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

Forests are tools to fight climate change. When we think about the changing global atmosphere, and as countries take on the necessary challenge to stop the emissions of carbon dioxide, we can also think about the role of trees, plants, and soil. First and foremost, we need to rebuild our economy to conserve energy, stop using fossil fuels, and greatly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (most notably methane) we are expelling into the air.  But if we can also take out some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we can lessen the impacts of climate change.

Our technological selves–and apologists for the producers of oil, gas and coal–are dreaming up chemical and mechanical forms of “carbon capture” to take carbon dioxide out of the air. Someday, some of these technical solutions may be viable, but right now we already have beautiful tools that we know will suck carbon out of the atmosphere. I saw them in the forests of the Michigamme Highlands.

“Natural climate solutions” is the term being used to describe what nature already does to remove carbon from the atmosphere.  It includes new trees and maturing forests, grasslands and wetlands that also store carbon, and regenerative farming practices that use plants and biological processes to capture carbon as they improve soil health. Climate scientists—including those who sample the air and water, run experiments in the woods and in labs, and the experts who build computer models—calculate that natural climate solutions can get us a third of the way or more towards the goals for carbon dioxide reduction set at the Paris Climate Conference in 2009. 

Our planet’s future is inextricably tied to the future of its forests.  First, there is carbon storage. The more forests we save—in the Amazon, Indonesia, Siberia, and in the Northwoods of the Great Lakes—the more carbon dioxide we keep out of the air that surrounds us. Second, there is carbon capture: the more forests we can grow, then the more greenhouse gasses we can remove from the atmosphere. We are fortunate that some forests have been permanently protected, in national parks, nature preserves, and wilderness areas like the McCormick Tract.  But that’s not enough.

Most of the forests in the world produce timber and other wood products. That’s good news, but only if we take into account carbon, climate change, and the age and health of the forests. “Land of many uses” say the signs of the National Forests owned and managed by the federal government.  Forests grow wood, but they also are natural areas, home to a vast variety of species, and locus for all types of recreation.  Some of my favorite campgrounds are those operated by the US Forest Service. I love them more when I now think of their tall trees as repositories of carbon.

Walk across the Upper Peninsula and you quickly learn not all forests are the same.  Some are deciduous hardwoods that grow new leaves every year; others are pines, conifers, and other evergreens. Some forests are wet, basically growing out of a swamp; some are dry, holding down sandy soils or breaking down rocky ground.  In the most common UP forests, the trees are small, dense and impenetrable; in the old cathedral forests, stately giants support a ceiling of leaves hundreds of feet overhead.

It turns out that the amount of carbon stored in a forest depends greatly on its location, types of trees, and—most importantly—its age.  And while a forest may look like it’s wild, undisturbed nature, the reality is that most forests are greatly influenced by humans.  When and how a forest is cut, what trees might, or might not, be re-planted, how we treat the soil, and who owns the forest and why, all determine what a forest will look like.  It will also determine how much carbon it holds.

Forest Management pays off for nature and for humans.  A tree-planting caps off many an Earth Day event, and I have dug a few holes myself with my Rotary Club. Planting trees must be part of any strategy to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, but again, where and what kind of trees are planted makes a difference. So too, we need careful attention to the forests already growing.

In the eastern Upper Peninsula, the Two-Hearted River inspired Ernest Hemingway.  In the watershed of this trout stream, The Nature Conservancy manages several thousand acres of woodlands.  Like many a forest in Michigan, it regrew after being stripped of trees over a century ago.  And then, during its regrowth, certain types of trees were removed to satisfy particular market demands. Since the 1990s, The Nature Conservancy has been cutting here and there, and studying everywhere, to increase the variety of tree species and the biodiversity of all types of plants and animals in the Two Hearted Forest Reserve.  Now, it’s being managed to also store the most carbon possible.

Here and elsewhere, scientists are learning a lot about carbon sequestration.  We already know enough to spur us to action. Throughout the world, forests are being protected, and new forests are being planted.  Both need to be better managed. However, we need to act quickly as we change our economy from being dependent on fossil fuels to a lower-energy lifestyle powered by electricity from solar, wind, and geothermal sources.  Building a new energy economy has to be our driving goal.  At the same time, we need to pursue natural climate solutions to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Indulgences, or a carbon market?  In booking a plane flight, or making another carbon-intensive purchase, you may have been given the option to buy some trees. You can “offset” the carbon dioxide released by the jet fuel on your trip by donating funds to plant trees that will sequester an equivalent amount of carbon. You may wonder, are we stopping climate change, or are we just removing our guilt?  In medieval times, the Church would sell indulgences whereby the wealthy could expunge their sins through a donation and a prayer.  Are carbon offsets the modern-day equivalent?

When it comes to the individual, offsets are a good thing. Yes, it would be better if we didn’t fly so much, but only one out of ten of the world’s residents travel by plane.  For those of us fortunate enough to be able purchase a plane ticket, we can rely on the math, donate a few more dollars, and plant some trees. It’s a positive step forward.  Still, we all recognize that video chats, high-speed rail, or a family trip in a car, are all better ways to stay in touch.

But what about companies and countries that emit carbon dioxide?  Can they offset their carbon emissions? The concept is similarly straightforward, but the implementation a lot trickier. The math matters more, and we need to be sure the money generated is spent in the best way.  Again, what trees are planted, and where, matters.  And, with money comes temptation and corruption.  Sadly, we see it in politics, and on Wall Street, Main Street, and even in the charitable organizations we love.

Nonetheless, there is no denying the power of economics. We see it in the introduction of more products, the sprawl of development across the countryside, and in clear-cut forests. But what if we can turn the powerful influence of markets towards good? That’s what many companies and countries are trying to do, to set a price on carbon, to create a market for carbon credits, and to take the offset concept whole scale. It requires science-based standards, verification by independent third-parties, complete transparency, and some level of regulation and oversight.

We are not there yet, but the scientists, business owners, and investors I trust take the opportunity of carbon offsets seriously. I have moved from skeptic to cautious optimist.  Undoubtedly there will be some false steps and wrong turns along the way, but I am willing to follow those with good intent as they lead us forward.  We need to guard against our own hubris, be wary of early self-congratulations, and avoid moral superiority, but we need to act. And we need to move on several fronts at once: less emissions, more justice, new technologies, and natural climate solutions.

We are no longer lost.  After we found our way out of the McCormick Wilderness, we visited some of the new and nearby acquisitions of The Nature Conservancy.  North of Craig Lake State Park, a gem of forests protected by the State of Michigan in 1967, is the Wilderness Lakes Preserve, over 6,100 acres of water and woods acquired by The Nature Conservancy in 2017. It was their first carbon deal in the Great Lakes region. And just north of that, another 4,853 acres were purchased in 2021. More land acquisitions are possible throughout the Upper Peninsula (read here about the most recent acquisition of more than 10,000 acres along the Slate River in the Michigamme Highlands)

On a wilderness lake acquired by The Nature Conservancy

Our four-wheel drive vehicles struggled up a muddy logging track to a brilliant blue lake ringed with conifers, and only one cabin. To be on the water in the Northwoods always restores my soul.  The blue pattern of the sky compares with the ripples on the lake, white pines reach fringed branches above the spruce and firs, and rare plants hide in the floating wetlands between the woods and the lake.  The tinkle of happy voices travels across the water to join the plink as water drips off my paddle. An osprey flies overhead. 

I quickly understand why someone built a cabin here, but the long drive in revealed that most of the land here has been an industrial forest.  We passed young forests of small trees, equipment parked at turns to fresh two tracks, and wide-open clear cuts. The soil was not a rich organic repository of carbon, but rather mud. This is not an old growth forest, but someday it could be.  Choices, driven by economics, will be made on how to use this and the other lands of the Michigamme Highlands.  I feel better knowing that title to at least several large tracts are held by an organization committed to protecting nature, promoting biodiversity, and fighting climate change.

The challenge, and the opportunity, is to manage the future of these woodlands to take out the most carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it away in the trees, the woods, and the soil.  Along the way will come tricky questions about what type of trees and other species—how much biodiversity—to promote and protect, how to use the forests for recreation and by whom, and when and how to convert some of the trees into wood products that sequester carbon while keeping the forest healthy.

Climate change demands action. The IPCC report powerfully confirms what we already know: greenhouse gasses building up in the atmosphere have changed the climate and threaten the natural systems upon which life–our lives–depend.  We are now in the fourth decade of rising temperatures globally, and the work of the world’s best scientists and data crunchers show us that the increased rain events, stronger storms, prolonged droughts, deadly fire seasons, and other difficult weather conditions are all symptoms of the planet’s heating.  These realities prompt difficult questions, for which there are no easy answers.

We need invest in changes to reduce our carbon impact.  Already, we are shifting away from the use of fossil fuels, building an economy around electric vehicles, and retrofitting buildings and machinery to be more energy efficient.  It all takes money, and both the public and private sector are making investments in a sustainable economy. Accompanying these shifts, are expenditures on green infrastructure: the natural climate solutions that take advantage of the power of plants to capture carbon out of the air and store it in the soil. 

When it comes to the Northwoods, the opportunity exists to use traditional land protection funds along with carbon offsets to better manage our forests to sequester and store carbon.  In the last two years, both the federal and state government have made policy decisions to protect more natural areas. Voters support these efforts because of their desire to get outside for recreation and their affection for special places.  In addition, private donations and organized philanthropy can help make land protection a win-win-win by preserving nature, supporting a recreational economy, and sequestering carbon.

The impacts of climate change concern us all, but discourage many. Given the immensity of the threat, some of us look away from the realities, deny or downplay the problem, or give up hope for the future. But there is an antidote: “we find it in action” says my favorite climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.

We all have some resources at our disposal and some ability to affect change, even if it is only in our own lives. And once we take action, we are no longer passive observers, but rather agents of optimism. And if we have some influence on, or responsibility for, some group, company, or government, then our actions will begin to make a measurable difference.  

There are many ways to take action, from the personal to the political.  For me, I can channel my love for the wild places of the Great Lakes into the preservation of the forests of the Michigamme Higlands, the Upper Peninsula, and the Northwoods in adjacent regions. 

Sunlight filtering in to an old growth forest in Craig Lake State Park

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